In one of the Philippines’ richest regions in natural resources, fish sellers and indigenous peoples take on the challenge of forest protection.
The involvement of citizens in safeguarding nature has been the trend in Mt Siburan for the past decade. Located in Occidental Mindoro, the 5,000-hectar lowland area contains the island’s largest remaining virgin forest that is home to unique species of wildlife threatened with extinction. It is also a major source of water for the city of Sablayan and food for the surrounding communities.
Because of Mt Siburan’s high levels of biodiversity and its value to Mindoro, the Haribon Foundation declared it as an Important Bird Area (IBA) in 2001. It is now part of the 117 IBAs in the Philippines that are known for the high level of birds and other life forms the places support and their invaluable contribution to the development of nearby communities. These IBAs have been used in recent years by the Philippine government and other organizations to identify priority regions that will benefit the most from conservation efforts.
One community that is dedicated to the protection of Mt Siburan is Sitio Palbong, where Nestor Gacillos, a fish vendor, is one of the directors for their Community Based Forest Management Association.
“A decade ago, ancient trees stood tall beside each other, but now there are huge distances between them. The calls of wild deer are no longer heard and hornbills not easily seen like before,” Gacillos says.
Aron Egiya from the Alangan tribe of the indigenous Mangyans shared the same view. “Our tribe has not seen a wild boar except for its tracks for over a year.”
Other wildlife species within Mt. Siburan include the critically endangered Mindoro Bleeding Heart, a ground dwelling bird with a unique red pattern on its chest that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Both Gacillos and Egiya are members of the IBA Monitoring System Team trained by Haribon on how to assess the threats being faced by Mt .Siburan such as furniture production and land conversion. As local residents, they are able to regularly collect firsthand data on what is happening to the biodiversity residing in the Mt. Siburan ecosystem and use it as a guide for their management plans and policies.
When asked why they chose to volunteer for the monitoring team, a common reason between Gacillos and Egiya is that they want to learn more about what is inside Mt. Siburan, to be able to convince others to stop destroying it.
“As a former leader of my tribe, I was able to attend seminars and trainings, but the best learning can be found inside the forest”, shared Egiya.
Gacillos, Egiya, and other members of the IBA team who are direct beneficiaries of Mt. Siburan have big goals such as to have a larger role in the planning of the local government. “We want to present our monitoring results to them so they know what kind of help Mt. Siburan needs,” the two locals agreed.
The two also have a desire to become deputized Forest Guards to be able to enforce laws themselves to keep poachers and kaingeros from coming in. According to aspiring law enforcers, “The current forest guards live in the city, while we live by the forest itself,” they concluded.